Games and Leisure Activities

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Games and Leisure Activities


Recitation . The tradition of reciting oral literature was among the most widespread and common leisure activities among Muslims of the medieval period. As a restorative or “recreational” activity in the literal sense of the word, reading or reciting the Qur’an aloud in rhythmic cadences, or listening to a skilled qari’ (Qur’an reciter), was probably the most universal Muslim activity apart from daily work. On the occasion of Friday prayers, at any commemorative service, and as a daily activity for many, the remembrance of Allah through reciting scripture, performing dhikr (formulaic, often rhythmic, repetitions of words in remembrance of God) were regular activities among the pious. The practice of dh’ikr became a sophisticated art among Sufi orders, whose music and rhythmic movement led to ecstasy and whose practices at their most extreme met with jurists’ disapproval. From children’s earliest introduction to Qur’an recital in the kuttab (primary school) school at age three to five, to the time a Muslim lay on the deathbed, recitation of the Qur’an and other oral religious expressions was a ubiquitous aspect of daily life.

Oral Poetry . Among the early Arabs, whose literary tradition was almost entirely oral, the pleasure of reciting poetry in Arabic was of enormous significance, as was the ability to compose it extemporaneously and to recall its great masters. Poetry contests were held at market fairs, the best-known being the market of Ukaz, and the most-renowned poems were those posted in the environs of the Ka’bah. Muhammad did not forbid the composition and recital of poetry, but the Qur’an denies the accusation that Muhammad was merely a poet and affirms the divine source of the revelation. Poets whose skills were not in the service of truth were reviled in the Qur’an. Poetry was a part of the psychology and culture of the Arabs, accompanying work, encouraging armies during battle, and commemorating great events. Pre-Islamic traditions of Arabic poetry influenced Muslim literature and social life for centuries to come. Styles changed and were influenced by other sources, but the practice of reciting and listening to poetry has continued unbroken to the present. Whether the setting was a circle of people around a campfire, a courtly gathering in a palace, or neighbors meeting in a public place or a private garden, recited poetry or prose was enjoyed by all classes. During a period of political unrest under Harun al-Rashid (ruled 786-809), even a camel driver was heard to recite verses passing judgment on the actions of the khalifah. Poetry could be recited alone or with musical accompaniment using drums, which were expressly permitted according to the hadiths, or using stringed instruments or flutes, which were questionable according to Islamic law.

Oral Histories . Pre-Islamic oral histories of tribes, which included their genealogies and great struggles, occupied leisure time and served as a repository of tribal history that was held and passed on by elders. During the early Islamic centuries, the oral narration of hadiths was woven into two related traditions. The transmission of knowledge about the precedents set by Prophet Muhammad and his companions, which developed into the legal sciences, was both a popular pursuit among the pious and a serious scholarly activity. The other tradition was the oral transmission of ayyam (battle days), which built on the tribal-history tradition and included both the history of the nascent Muslim community under Prophet Muhammad’s leadership and later narratives of the futuhat (openings), military struggles to open new territories to Muslim rule. Tribal history and military history merged in the composition of poems celebrating victories or lamenting defeats. After the Crusaders massacred the inhabitants of Jerusalem in 1099, the few survivors made their way to the Abbasid court and horrified their listeners with a poetic account of the event. As a courtly institution, poets were commissioned to write poems or rewarded for reciting them on great occasions, a tradition that continued at Persian, Turkish, and Indian Muslim courts and public ceremonies.

Pre-Islamic Ties . Several examples of the storytelling tradition in Muslim culture demonstrate how widespread and enmeshed with pre-Islamic cultures it was. The best-known literary example of this interconnectedness is Alf Laylah wa-Laylah (The Thousand and One Nights), a frame tale that includes stories from Indian, Persian, and other traditions and illustrates the continuity of the tradition in Islam and its many roots. Other works, such as animal fables from Greek, Indian, and Persian sources, found their way into both high culture and popular culture. Examples of linkage between Muslim and pre-Islamic traditions in other places include the oral history transmitters called griot in West Africa and the performers of heroic tales from Hindu and indigenous sources in Southeast Asia, who used shadow puppets with elaborate percussion accompaniment.

Storytellers . The hakawati (storytellers) plied a trade that was passed down from father to son at public or private social gatherings. Female storytellers, whose material might be secular or religious, were also cherished. She-herezad, the narrator of Alf Layla wa-Laylah, is the best-known example. At urban gatherings, storytellers commemorated famous people and events, such as the Crusades, or transmitted stories of local history and local heroes. Their stories could also be a form of political commentary

or satire on the current leadership. Some of these popular entertainments included dramatic enactments involving props, puppets, actors, or mimes.

Religious Stories . Stories in the pious vein included the stories of the prophets (Qassas al-Anbiya) and stories from the Prophet Muhammad’s life (Sirah), which were passed on through family and social gatherings as well as in sermons and scholarly circles. Many stories of the prophets were versions based on Jewish and Christian scriptures and oral traditions and were viewed as valid only where corroborated by the Qur’an and hadiths. Nonetheless, the telling of these embellished stories persisted because of their emotive impact and ability to invoke a sense of piety in the hearers, especially the young and those without formal education. Another strand of the storytelling tradition was picked up by Sufi teachers who instructed their followers by means of symbolic, didactic stories, tapping into an age-old tradition of spiritual teaching and collective wisdom. One of the best-known literary works in this tradition is the Mathnawi of Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), which includes allegorical tales and poems to enhance spiritual growth and moral uplift.

Musical Entertainment . Public performance of music, except vocal or percussive, and the use of rhythmic movements to accompany it are both activities considered forbidden by many Muslim jurists and frowned upon by the pious. Yet, music and dance survived from pre-Islamic cultures in both popular and courtly cultures, but these arts underwent modification with the spread of Islam and its consolidation. After the rise of Islam, folk dances tended to be performed in gender-separate groups, became more subdued in their movements, and were purged of pagan symbolism and sexual suggestiveness. The tradition of formal dance cultivated at courts was distant from Islamic practice but continued to be widespread within that narrow sphere of Muslim society. Courtly dance was based on refined and sophisticated musical traditions from Greek, Persian, Indian, and other ancient origins. The use of highly trained female slave singers at the courts is celebrated in literary works and historical accounts. Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani’s Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs, circa 917-967) is evidence of the breadth and sophistication of musical performance traditions in Muslim society during the tenth century. The courtly tradition filtered down to the upper and middle classes, and the popular tradition took on greater sophistication in urban settings, incorporating elements that demonstrate the heterogeneous, mobile nature of Muslim culture. Musical instruments, especially the large variety of stringed instruments that spread across the lands of Islam, had their origins in the folk traditions of the Mediterranean, Africa, and Central and South Asia. Among these instruments are the kettledrum, the tambourine, the rebec (forerunner of the violin and related instruments), the lute and its derivatives (such as the mandolin, guitar, and banjo), and the qanun (similar to a zither, autoharp, or sitar). Military or processional music was a part of public spectacles, providing entertainment and galvanizing public support for the ruling groups. Horns and drums accompanied processions to announce a celebration, attracting attention over a wide area. With the rising influence of Turkic groups in the Abbasid state and successor governments and their migration into Southwest Asia, the Turkic tradition of martial music added to these influences a rousing forerunner of the military marching band. Turkish, and later Ottoman, military engagements with European armies influenced the development of the orchestra and the marching band in European musical history.

Games of Strategy and Chance . The two most popular and enduring Muslim table games are chess and backgammon. The game of chess (shatranj) was widely praised for its value in developing the intellect and military-strategy skills and was widely played in courtly or polite society. The game originated in India before Islam, and after passing into Persia, it became an integral part of Muslim culture. Harun al-Rashid is said to have given a chess set as a diplomatic gift to Charlemagne. Poems were written about chess; children were taught chess as part of their education; and theoretical works were written about the game. The Abbasid khalifahs held competitions and played matches. Backgammon (nard) is another game of great renown in Muslim society. It was played on a board divided into twelve color-contrasting diamond-shaped points to represent the months in a year. Thirty pieces represented the number of days in the month, and two dice—the determining variable in the game—were considered symbols of human submission and divine will. The game is said to have originated in Persia with a King Ardashir, though it may have antecedents in India as well. Another strategy game, called mancala, is an indigenous African game that dates back to ancient Egypt and was widely played in Muslim West Africa. There are many variations of mancala all over Africa, and it may have spread to Southeast Asia and elsewhere around the Indian Ocean during the medieval period. It was played on a board with rows (two, three, four, or more) of depressions into which seeds or other counters were placed, the object being to move the counters in complete laps around the board, keeping all of them in competition. The game requires skill and sophisticated strategy. Medieval Muslims played it on a beautifully carved game board in an elegant setting or in depressions on the ground with seeds or pebbles as counters. In addition to these three intellectual games, a variety of games of chance continued from their pre-Islamic origins, many involving dice or sheep’s knuckles. Gambling—whether with cards, dice, or arrows—or any other game of chance or skill was strictly forbidden, but the wealthy and powerful and the lower elements of urban Muslim society both gambled to some extent. Some members of the courtly classes are said to have squandered fortunes, some personal and some the property of the state. To the horror of Muslim jurists, people also gambled on fights between animals such as cocks, dogs, and large and small beasts of prey—as a throwback to pagan times. Some dissolute members of the royalty had arenas constructed for this purpose.

Child’s Play . Medieval Muslim literature describes many games for children. Nearly all girls, and many boys, played with dolls, which might be as simple as a figure made of twisted straw or as sophisticated as a carved-wood, fabric-dressed figure sold in the toy market. For the holidays, some dolls were made of molded sugar or bread dough filled with sweets. Little animal-shaped figures made of scented substances were tossed out at festivals. Playing with dolls even received the sanction of a hadith, which records how Muhammad’s youngest wife, Aisha, played with a likeness of Solomon’s winged horse, with the approval of the Prophet. In the many cultures of the Muslim world, children played a wide variety of guessing games, hide-and-seek, and games of rivalry and competition. Other games imitated adult activities, such as weddings and work, and included play with model animals.

Military Sports . Pastimes and popular sports related to military exercises had pre-Islamic roots and grew in variety and sophistication under the mingling of cultures and the prosperity in Muslim civilization. Wrestling and weight-lifting remained popular, incorporating regional customs from Indo-Iranian and Greek traditions and—in the eastern part of the Muslim world—partaking of the Asian martial-arts legacy. Celebrated by Prophet Muhammad, archery increased greatly in popularity with the rise of the Turks, who brought the remarkable skills and technology of Central Asian horse archers. This tradition continued through the Ottoman period.

Equestrian Sports . Horse breeding and equestrian arts were a vital part of military and elite society. Treatises on horse breeding, training, and riding, as well as genealogies of horses and collections of the veterinary knowledge needed to maintain them, were passed to other cultures, where they continue to influence world equestrian circles. Equestrian skills were shown in official processions and demonstrations, and horse racing was an important activity, which was approved by Islamic law so long as it was not coupled with gambling. Horse racing over long and

short distances reached sophisticated levels. Unable to afford the expensive sport of horse racing, people outside elite social circles raced dogs, camels, donkeys, and homing pigeons. Rulers built hippodromes for racing horses and playing polo, a sport whose roots also lie in the broad grasslands of Central Asia among horse-breeding pastoral groups. Among such peoples, where most learned to ride before they could walk, racing was a popular sport that played an important role in the culture. A polo-like game that is still played at festivals on the Asian steppe involves a swinging goat carcass, which one team tries to grab from the other for the victory. Polo itself evolved into a sophisticated game, which the khalifah and his guests watched from lavishly appointed seating. Another version, called tabtab, was also played from horseback but with a sort of wooden racquet. Elite women sometimes participated in racing and equestrian sports, as they did in Central Asian pastoral society.

Hunting. Another sport that crossed rural and urban, elite and common, lines was hunting. Pastoral Arabs preferred hunting to farming. For the nonelite, hunting was a source of food as well as enjoyment. Ordinary people hunted and fished with whatever means were available, including hounds, falcons, traps, nets, and decoys. The Arab, Persian, Indian, and Turkish ruling classes inherited hunting from pre-Islamic royal traditions and shared its passion for the sport with the royalty of European, Asian, and African cultures—creating an intermingling of influences that can no longer be traced with any certainty. Royal hunting was a valiant, luxurious, and often massively wasteful pastime. It was considered a measure of virility and readiness to do battle, a source of vigorous exercise that was beneficial to health—even though kings and princes were killed while engaging in it. Large hunting parties included soldiers who practiced military skills and developed new ones. The popularity of hunting also stimulated the sciences of zoology, veterinary medicine, animal behavior, and military technology. The use of trained hunting birds and other animals was among the hallmarks of Muslim hunting. Falconry reached a high degree of sophistication. Many treatises were written about falconry, and its skills were also passed down orally. Other animals such as dogs, horses, wolves, panthers, tigers, lynx-caracal weasels, and ferrets were used in the hunt, but the most prized of the royal hunting animals was the cheetah. Cheetahs were trained to ride on a pillion, or platform, attached to a horse. The animal stalked the prey, or the hunting party would run down and tire a herd of gazelle and then allow the cheetah to take one gazelle as a finale. Other animals trailed the quarry using their keen sense of smell or eyesight, flushed the quarry from thickets, or dug them out of holes. These tracking animals were trained to sharpen their instincts and taught to give up their prey to the human hunter in return for a token piece of meat. Hunting animals were sold for large sums of money and presented as diplomatic gifts of high esteem. Lion hunting was a royal pastime of great prestige and danger, and many royals enjoyed the far less-dangerous pastime of hunting water fowl as well. Whatever the quarry, elite hunting parties ranged over large stretches of territory, not only royal reserves but also open countryside that was under cultivation or in use by pastoralists. Hunting could cause considerable damage to crops and flocks, and adequate, or generous, compensation was expected and generally given by the official hunting party. Royal hunting parties were known to stop at rustic homes for refreshment, an honor that might also be richly compensated. Abuses were surely not unknown, but the jurists in whom ruling groups sought legitimacy were firm on the matter of compensation for losses incurred by lesser folk from the pastimes of the powerful.


Muhammad M. Ahsan, Social Life Under the Abbasids (London & New York: Longman, 1979).

Andre Clot, Harun al-Rashid and the World of the Thousand and One Nights, translated by John Howe (New York: New Amsterdam Press, 1989).

Mounah A. Khouri, “Literature,” in The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance, edited by J. R. Hayes (New York: New York University Press, 1975).